“Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.
To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
“Into this wild abyss, The womb of nature and perhaps her grave, Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire, But all these in their pregnant causes mixed Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight, Unless the almighty maker them ordain His dark materials to create more worlds, Into this wild abyss the wary fiend Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while, Pondering his voyage . . .”
On this date in 1948, Terence (Terry) David John Pratchett was born in Buckinghamshire, England. He enjoyed reading, especially science fiction, fantasy, myth and ancient history. He has said that from a young age he was skeptical about Christianity and came to the conclusion that there was no god. He has won many awards, including the Carnegie Medal for The Amazing Maurice and Educated Rodents (2001), and was knighted in 2009 for his services to literature. Several of his books have been adapted as movies for television.
Pratchett’s first novel, Carpet People, a children’s fantasy, was published in 1971. Pratchett is best known for his “Discworld” novels, a fantasy series tied together not by characters or plot but by the setting of the Discworld, a flat world sitting on the backs of four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle swimming through space. The first book in this series, The Color of Magic, a fantasy adventure starring a hapless wizard parodying many conventions of the genre, was published in 1983, and the thirty-eighth, I Shall Wear Midnight, a coming-of-age story featuring a strong young witch battling prejudice, was published in 2010. The Discworld, like many fantasy worlds, features gods who occasionally interfere directly in events or feature as characters in some way. In 2007, Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, but has continued to write and publish new books, albeit at a slower pace. He has made many public statements in support of the right to die, and talks openly about his Alzheimer’s experience, including his wish to take his own life before his disease is critical. He was knighted in 2009.
Throughout his work, Pratchett questions religion in many different ways, pointing out religious hypocrisy while at the same time illustrating how different the world would be if God, or any gods, were real. The 1992 Discworld novel Small Gods shows the god Om visiting his worshipers, and being deeply dissatisfied with the direction in which his church has gone. Good Omens (1990), co-written with fellow British fantasy author Neil Gaiman, deals with Christian mythology and the book of Revelations. It begins with an angel and a demon conversing outside the Garden of Eden and questioning God’s motives regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It ends with the ten-year-old antichrist, Adam, contemplating the raid of a neighbor’s orchard and thinking, “There never was an apple . . . that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it.” Pratchett said, “I read the Old Testament all the way through when I was about 13 and was horrified” (The Daily Mail, U.K., June 21, 2008).
“There is a rumor going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is s evidence that they exist.” ~ Sir Terry Pratchett, The Daily Mail (U.K.), June 21, 2008
On this date in 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London, the second of seven children. The industrious young woman worked as a companion, governess and then opened her own school. Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, was published in 1786, followed by a novel, a children’s book (re-issued with illustrations by William Blake), a translation, and The Female Reader. When Edmund Burke read her review of a sermon by dissenting minister Richard Price, he wrote a famous attack on the American and French Revolutions. Mary was the first to rebut his polemic. A Vindication of the Rights of Men was published five weeks later, rejecting all arguments from authority or precedent. Her seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792. The first influential book calling for the equality of the sexes, it urged that women be educated and treated as “rational creatures.” Wollstonecraft championed dress reform, breast-feeding, early education and a national system of coeducational primary schools. She warned of those who practice “on the credulity of women.”
She gave birth to a daughter in an unhappy liaison with Gilbert Imlay, then married atheist William Godwin in 1797. Following an uneventful pregnancy, 38-year-old Mary gave birth to a second daughter, Mary. The new mother died of a childbirth infection after ten intense days of suffering. Her daughter Mary ran off as a teenager with poet Percy Shelley, and wrote Frankenstein at age 19. Wollstonecraft was an ardent rationalist and Deist who adopted an agnostic point of view toward the end of her life. D. 1797.
“. . . the being cannot be termed rational or virtuous who obeys any authority but that of reason.” ~ Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
On this date in 1564, William Shakespeare was born in England. He died in 1616. The “master” playwright was eulogized by 19th century agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll. In one of his famous lectures, Ingersoll said that when he read Shakespeare, “I beheld a new heaven and a new earth.” (The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Interviews, Vol. IV, p. 39.) “All well-educated ministers know that the Bible suffers by a comparison with Shakespeare.” (Vol. VIII, p. 297) “If Shakespeare could be as widely circulated as the Bible . . . nothing would so raise the intellectual standard of mankind. Think of the different influence on men between reading Deuteronomy and ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ . . . The church teaches obedience. The man who reads Shakespeare has his intellectual horizon enlarged.”
No one knows Shakespeare’s personal religious views, although he certainly was not orthodox, and put many different types of sentiments into the mouths of his characters. His philosophy seems most succinctly described in the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech from “As You Like It,” which begins: “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players:/ They have their exits and their entrances;. . .” ending with “mere oblivion./ Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Below are several of Shakespeare’s most famous irreverencies. D. 1616.
“In religion, what damned error but some sober brow will bless it, and approve it with a text, . . .?” ~ “The Merchant of Venice,” Act III, Sc. II
On this date in 1943, author Peter Watson was born in Birmingham, England. An intellectual historian and investigative journalist, he was educated at the universities of Durham, London and Rome, later living in the United States. He has written for The Observer, The New York Times, Punch and The Spectator, and is the author of fiction, as well as many books on art history, biography, psychology, and true crime. His books include: The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums (2006, with Cecilia Todeschini), Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (2005), Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century (2001) (also published as A Terrible Beauty), Sotheby’s: The Inside Story (1998), Landscape of Lies (1989) and The Caravaggio Conspiracy (1984). In Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, Watson seeks a new way to tell the history of the world from prehistory to modern day, asserting that human knowledge is divided into two realms: inward (philosophy and religion) and outward (observation and science). His stance supports the latter. Twins: An Uncanny Relationship? (1982), explores behavior patterns shared by identical twins, “to offer a rational alternative to mumbo jumbo for explaining many of the coincidences reported in twin studies, ” according to a Los Angeles Times review. “A few saints and a little charity don’t make up for all the harm religion has done over the ages,” he has said (CBC News, May 5, 2007).
When asked about the good that religion has done in the world in an interview by The New York Times Magazine (December 11, 2005), Watson replied: “I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it.” He went on to say, “I do not believe in the inner world. I think that the inner world comes from the exploration of the outer world–reading, traveling, talking. I do not believe that meditation or cogitation leads to wisdom or peace or the truth.” Since 1998, Watson has been a research associate at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, at the University of Cambridge. He lives in London, England.
“Religion has kept civilization back for hundreds of years, and the biggest mistake in the history of civilization, is ethical monotheism, the concept of the one God. Let’s get rid of it and be rational.” ~ Peter Watson interview, CBC News (May 5, 2007)
On this date in 1830, Clémence-Auguste Royer was born in Nantes, France. Her parents were Catholic royalists, and Royer’s early education took place in a convent school. Royer became a republican following the Revolution of 1848, and began to question other common views at that time. Royer obtained a teaching certificate and taught at girls schools in Wales, where she mastered English, and in France. She read widely on science in these school libraries. In 1855, as a result of her inquiries, she rejected Catholicism thoroughly, and devoted herself to science. She began to offer lectures on science and logic for women in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1858. Royer translated Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species into French in 1863. She famously wrote a preface to the work which used Darwin’s mechanism for evolution as part of an anti-religious argument which Darwin himself did not make — by this time, the book was in its third English edition and contained several strong references to a creator. Royer had been an evolutionist before reading Darwin, having been strongly influenced by the writings of Jean Baptiste LaMarck. French scientists, especially atheists and anthropologists, were strongly influenced by evolution and natural selection as framed by Royer, who also discussed the implications of evolutionary theory for human beings and society in her introduction (it would be almost ten years before Darwin himself grappled with these issues in The Descent of Man). Royer continued as Darwin’s official French translator until the third French edition of Origin was published in 1870.
Royer, despite not being a research scientist, remained a popular interpreter of science as well as a philosopher of science throughout her life. As a woman, she was denied access to many learned societies, as well as university teaching positions. It has been argued by Jennifer Michael Hecht, among others, that Royer opened doors to women within the freethinking movement. Royer was a feminist who argued passionately for the rights of women, married and unmarried, to child custody, property, education and equality with men. In 1866, she had a son by her lover and life partner, Pascal Duprat, a married man, which sharpened her concern about the major legal obstacles then present to unwed mothers and their children. She published many books and articles throughout her life, and considered the pinnacle to be 1900’s Natura rerum, her theory of nature. In 1900, Royer was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her contributions as “a woman of letters and a scientific writer.” D. 1902
“Yes, I believe in revelation, but a permanent revelation of man to himself and by himself, a rational revelation that is nothing but the result of the progress of science and of the contemporary conscience, a revelation that is always only partial and relative and that is effectuated by the acquisition of new truths and even more by the elimination of ancient errors. We must also attest that the progress of truth gives us as much to forget as to learn, and we learn to negate and to doubt as often as to affirm.” ~ Clémence Royer, preface to Charles Darwin, L’origine des espèces, in Jennifer Michael Hecht, The End of the Soul
Charlotte Brontë was born the 21 April 1816 was an English novelist and poet, the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood and whose novels have become classics of English literature. She first published her works (including her best known novel, Jane Eyre) under the pen name Currer Bell.
Jane Eyre had immediate commercial success and initially received favourable reviews. G. H. Lewes wrote that it was “an utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering, much-enduring spirit,” and declared that it consisted of “suspiria de profundis!” (sighs from the depths). Speculation about the identity and gender of the mysterious Currer Bell heightened with the publication of Wuthering Heights by Ellis Bell (Emily) and Agnes Grey by Acton Bell (Anne). Accompanying the speculation was a change in the critical reaction to Brontë’s work, as accusations were made that the writing was “coarse”, a judgement more readily made once it was suspected that Currer Bell was a woman. However, sales of Jane Eyre continued to be strong and may even have increased as a result of the novel developing a reputation as an “improper” book.
“Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine” – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.” ~ Charlotte Bronte
On this date in 1966, philosopher David John Chalmers was born in Australia. Chalmers earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of Adelaide in 1986. He was briefly a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, but transferred to Indiana University at Bloomington, where he obtained a Ph.D. in 1993 in philosophy and cognitive science. He worked at Washington University in St. Louis from 1993 to 1995, and at the University of California – Santa Cruz from 1995 to 1998. He worked in the Department of Philosophy and the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona from 1999 to 2004. Since 2004, Chalmers is professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Consciousness at Australian National University. As of 2009, he is also a part-time professor of philosophy at New York University. His 1996 book, The Conscious Mind, is considered a seminal work on consciousness. His numerous papers and books have had great influence in the realms of cognitive science, philosophy of the mind and philosophy of language.
“Now I have to say I’m a complete atheist. I have no religious views myself and no spiritual views, except very watered down humanistic spiritual views. And consciousness is just a fact of life. It’s a natural fact of life.” ~ David Chalmers in an interview on “Encounter” with Margaret Coffey for Australian ABC National Radio, April 10, 2011
“Those who know, not only that the Everlasting lives in them, but that what they, and all things, really are IS the Everlasting, dwell in the groves of the wish-fulfilling trees, drink the brew of immortality, and listen everywhere to the unheard music of eternal concord. These are the immortals.”
~ Joseph Campbell, from “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”